Today on Kotaku, there is a piece on “Nerds and Male Privilege.” I saw it go out on Twitter, and I took the bait. And, I was greeted with an article that talks at length about the nasty effects male privilege has on “geek girls.” Girls.
To be fair, this is an issue I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks. And, the author does at several points actually refer to women as women. But, the easy conjoining of “geek” and “girl” when speaking or writing about women who dare game, or read comic books, or LARP, or engage in whatever other aspects of geek subcultures is problematic. I have a difficult time believing men who say they are advocating for gender equality when they readily admit male privilege in the same breath that they refer to all women as girls. There are contexts in which “girl” makes sense — when it’s referring to teens, tweens, and other youth, for example, it’s correct — and there are specific contexts where it is the preferred terminology. Geek Girl Con, for example, has girl right there in the name. But, Geek Girl Con is organized by and for women, and the same holds for Girl Gamer; if women want to call themselves girls, that’s their prerogative. However, if someone on the other side of the power divide wants to call women girls, then he is engaging in some of the very processes by which women are infantilized, dismissed, and stripped of their power.
When adult women are forced into a box labeled “girl,” it minimizes any of the already limited cultural and political authority they have access to. While I have seen arguments that the word “guy” is somehow parallel to girl, it does not carry the same connotations of youth, or at least does not carry them to the same extent. The true parallel to “girl’ is “boy,” and I rarely see that applied to adult men or even teen boys as anything other than a Clint Eastwood-style macho insult.
“Girl” is always either infantalized or sexualized — I made the mistake of running an image search for “geek girl” to try to find an illustration for this post, and I was confronted with a few pictures of familiar women like Tina Fey and a few images that appeared to be snapshots of real live women who self-identify as geek girls. But, these were lost amidst a deluge of conventionally attractive women in Nintendo underpants sprawled on couches, motivational-style posters celebrating the “merits” of geek girls featuring more women in their underwear, illustrations of large breasted women in Batman T-shirts, and other pinup-type fodder. It’s Cool Chick Carol all over again. The “geek girl” revealed in Google images is one born in the sickly, sexy, soft focus light of the male gaze.
At a less political level, the further problem with the overdeployment of the term “girls” is that it isn’t even correct. At least in video gaming, which is probably the most broadly accessible and highly visible area of geek culture, industry statistics show there are relatively few gamers who are girls in the technical sense. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s most recent data, women over the age of 18 represent 37 percent of gamers, which is to say that women — not girls, women — make up more than one third of gamers. Actual girls make up just 5 percent of gamers. [source]
Besides, I’m sure if you called Tina Fey a girl to her face, she’d roll her eyes and give you a serious dressing down. Perhaps more of us should react the same way.